Ad Astra
Volume 15, Number 2 March/April/May 2003

The Human Journey
By Brian E. Chase, NSS Executive Director

The world has lost seven heroes, and we mourn together.

Yet the strongest voices supporting the continued exploration of space, even as we are stunned at the tragic loss of Columbia, comes from those who assume the risk—the astronauts and their families. The words of President Bush echoed theirs, and the National Space Society supports the President’s determination that “our journey into space will go on.” NASA and our space exploration initiatives must move forward.

Yet it was also inevitable that those opposed to human space exploration would take full advantage of the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia to ply their trade. The inevitable argument is that robots can explore space, so why do we need humans?
In reality, any balanced space exploration and development program should use both robotic probes and humans, not exclusively one or the other. Indeed, there will be destinations in our universe with environments so hostile or in locations too remote that humans will never be able to visit, so there will always be a critical role for robotic exploration. As well, robotic probes can and should serve as critical pathfinders for future human missions.

But the mobility, dexterity, intellect, reaction time, situational awareness, and observations of human explorers will always surpass the capabilities of robotic or automated probes, even those remotely operated by humans.

If robots are superior to humans, then why do we send research teams to Antarctica? Why do scientists dive in the depths of the ocean? Why do researchers explore the interior of active volcanic formations? Would those same critics opt to replace their presence in an Earth-based laboratory with a robot or automated system?

And why do people choose to travel for a vacation, rather than surfing the internet, watching videos or looking at postcards of that same destination?

Because mankind has a natural curiosity and a need to explore, and there are activities unique to humans that allow us to observe and interact with our surroundings in ways that robots never will. There simply is no substitute for a person “in the loop” whether on Earth, in LEO, or on another planet.

Our exploration of space is just the first step, though. The mark of a truly spacefaring civilization is the day that ordinary citizens can decide whether to live and work on Earth or opt to live away from our planet. We have a long journey to reach that point, but the journey is worth the risk and the expense, and will yield enormous economic, scientific and commercial benefits along the way.
History teaches us that societies that have pushed their frontiers outward have prospered; those that have not have withered and faded into the history books. No society has ever gone wrong opening up the frontier, and we shouldn’t stop now. The crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia would expect nothing less.

back to top